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Colorado Rapids Tactics: The Evolution of 'Pareja-Ball'

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Oscar Pareja's system of play has seen several different tweaks since he took the team over in early 2012. He appeared to find a tactical set-up that worked for him throughout most of 2013, how did it evolve into what we see today?

Christian Petersen

There have been a few different tactical ideas thrown to the proverbial wall by Oscar Pareja since he took over the team in 2012. The only real constant is that the team has always been attack-minded in their tactical decisions, but the formations and assignments have shifted a bit. The team appeared to settle into a bit of a rhythm with the 4-2-3-1 that carried them into the playoffs. Getting to that took a few tweaks, though. Let's take a look at the four tactics that we've seen up until today.

We start with the famously flawed 4-3-3 that the Rapids ran for about 1/2 of the 2012 season. You'll recall that there was a big deal made in that off-season about the fact that the boring ol' Rapids were switching to a formation that has almost always been synonymous with attack. (Sporting Kansas City's 4-3-3 of course is the main exception to that rule!) Unfortunately, Oscar entered the season with a mentality of 'attack! attack! attack attack attack!', and that formation showed it. What made it such a toothless formation defensively?

Here was an average line-up for the Rapids when Oscar Pareja was playing his original 4-3-3:

Tony Cascio - Omar Cummings - Brian Mullan
Jaime Castrillon - Martin Rivero
Hendry Thomas
Luis Zapata - Drew Moor - Marvell Wynne - Hunter Freeman
Matt Pickens

You can see where the issues with that one just looking at that little chart there. The offense was essentially in a pentagon up at the top of the field. And make no mistake, those players ALL stayed forward. Of that group, only Mullan was skilled at tracking back, which left humongous pockets of space between the fullbacks and the wing-strikers. That didn't change regardless of who happened to be up there -- Conor Casey, Kamani Hill, Edu etc. are all attack-minded players with little defensive acumen.

The idea was simple: the Rapids had the numbers forward to make the opposing team pay. The team was banking on the defense to do just enough while the offense flooded the opposing team and created chances. Martin Rivero was the point man in the whole scenario, with Jaime Castrillon acting as a roaming troubadour in the final third. The center forward was seen as a pivot at the top, holding the ball up rather than shooting himself, while the wing strikers buzzed around near the 18-yard-box. While those players moved, the fullbacks would get forward and add another two bodies into the mix at the byline.

Now, with the right players, this formation probably could have played some sexy football. That is, Barcalona could probably tiki-taka the hell out of anyone in their way with it, because that style of play was created to cover up defensive liabilities by making it so the opponent could only hold onto the ball 20% of the time. Colorado, on the other hand, didn't have that sort of a roster. They lacked players who could possess the ball well high up the field (Omar Cummings as a center forward!!) and so they ended up holding the ball in defense for most of their possession spells -- that's what you hear me often refer to as 'bad possession' -- and then go full-on kamakaze with their attacks.

Both fullbacks flooded forward very, very often. For the numerically challenged, that meant that there were a grand total of seven of the 11 players on the Rapids would flood forward at once. While that did give the Rapids a numbers advantage and helped them to create a ton of chances, awful finishing and a lack of chemistry throughout the season made it so they would often instead end up giving the ball back.

And oh, the pain that we saw when the other team got the ball back. Remember those pockets of space I mentioned earlier? Having seven players being asked to attack at essentially all times made it farcically easy for teams to get on the counterattack unopposed. It also hurt the team very badly that every fullback on the roster was defensively challenged, Zapata especially. San Jose ended up scoring 10 goals in three games against the Rapids in part because they were one of the best counterattacking teams in MLS history in 2012.

Funny enough, Atiba Harris probably would have been a big help for the Rapids while they were playing this formation.

It actually did get a little better when Hendry Thomas was brought in, but even with his presence in the middle of the park, there was clearly a drastic need for an overhaul in both personnel and tactics after the season. (Which we got, and things ended up turning out OK!)

But not before we saw one other shift in the tactics about halfway through last year.

***

Oddly enough, it wasn't the fact that the Rapids were routinely getting smashed that forced Oscar Pareja's hand when it came to shifting to a Real Salt Lake-style 4-4-2 formation. Rather, it was a somewhat nasty spat of injuries about halfway through the year along with the return of Conor Casey to the lineup. Knowing full well that Gary Smith rode the Casey-horse for every single year he was in Colorado -- the one time that the Rapids lacked him, the team was led by a seven-goal effort by Jeff Larentowicz, and even then Conor was second on the team after scoring six goals in eight games before the slip 'n' slide game in Seattle ruined his Colorado career -- and a 4-4-2 was born.

(We're not going to count that horrid 4-1-4-1 formation we saw for a single game against the Sounders in this post, because that was more of a one-off call for help than anything else.)

Here's what that formation typically looked like, roster-wise:

Tony Cascio - Conor Casey
Martin Rivero
Jaime Castrillon - Brian Mullan
Jeff Larentowicz
Luis Zapata - Drew Moor - Marvell Wynne - Hunter Freeman
Matt Pickens

There was very little change in the actual tactics of the team on paper, but the way that the attacks were structured changed a bit in this formation. I spoke a lot last year about how Jaime Castrillon seemed like he just couldn't make anything happen when he wasn't in his roaming central attacking spot, and following that sub-plot, he did very little as a winger in this system. Martin Rivero appeared to become the main hub of attack in this particular system of play, as the fullbacks were less charge-happy with a pinched-in diamond ahead of them. (This did not, of course, actually stop other teams from exploiting the weak counter-attack stopping skills of the Rapids. Zapata was reaaally bad at that, especially when Castrillon was the only other guy in front of him.)

Rivero being the focal point ended up being another personnel issue, in the end. We all know that the boy absolutely loved to shoot last year, and a great many chances never made it to Cascio's or Casey's or Cummings' or whoever's feet because Rivero would take the chance himself. (This is where that horrifying 3% shot conversion rate last year comes in.) In the end, the diamond 4-4-2 ended up tactically playing out slightly more defensively and slightly worse offensively than the 4-3-3, which solved essentially nothing.

Fortunately, the best was yet to come. After the great purge that was the 2013 off-season, we saw a change in the preseason to something quite interesting.

***

This isn't exactly how Pareja would have drawn it up, obviously, but I think of the style of play that the Rapids started the 2013 season off with as different than the one they ended it with. There are only minor differences, but I think those differences are neat enough. They started 2013 back in a 4-3-3, but a slightly different one. There was no 'pentagon of shame' this time around. Instead, we had a 'spine of awesomeness'.

Here's what it looked like on opening night against FC Dallas:

Deshorn Brown
Kevin Harbottle - Dillon Powers - Atiba Harris
Pablo Mastroeni
Hendry Thomas
Brian Mullan - Diego Calderon - Drew Moor - Marvell Wynne
Steward Ceus (lol)

The biggest difference between that and the 4-2-3-1 we'll be seeing later is that there weren't two guys in the back of the midfield. Matt Doyle mentioned a few times during the off-season that he wasn't anticipating great things from Pablo Mastroeni and Hendry Thomas pairing together in the midfield because 'they're just too similar'. I was never worried about that, because the two of them were being asked to do different things in this system.

When Ben and I talked about it, we mentioned that it was essentially like having a 'spine' in the midfield. There was an anchor man, a linking man and an attacking man. Pablo wasn't playing as a 'holding' midfielder, but rather as a roaming link-up player in the middle of the field. He wasn't tasked with winning the ball, but distributing it forward to create the attack. The stats from that opening game show this: Thomas in the back of the midfield spent his entire game sitting just behind the center circle -- he likely would have been a bit further back had this not been a game where the Rapids had the ball 65% of the time -- and had 20 'defensive' actions. Mastroeni was farther up the field for the most part and only had 11. Mastroeni's small amount of defensive work was all done farther up the field as well.

With that bendable and roaming spine in place, it gave the Rapids a presence in the midfield that they had lacked in 2012 and the Rapids were able to make things happen on offense. Unfortunately, they lacked a clear attacking strategy with this particular formation and seemed to be happy simply playing the numbers game again like they did back in 2012. This was helped out a bit by the physical presences of Atiba Harris and Deshorn Brown, who were able to keep the ball from being turned over quite as quickly as it had been last year.

The team still tried to possess the ball as often as possible in all phases of play, which meant that excepting a few magical Deshorn Brown runs, the team was at its best when it tried to run the top five players up the field with each other and zipper-pass their way into the box. Having Brian Mullan as a fullback along with Marvell Wynne kept the attack mostly working through the center of the park, up the spine, since the fullbacks weren't particularly adept at racing forward into the attack. (While Brian Mullan did great things as a wing-striker in 2012, at fullback he simply didn't have the speed to play in both phases of the game.)

It was a mostly effective method of play, but one that took a knock when Pablo Mastroeni went down and the Rapids realized they didn't have anyone other than Dillon Powers who could play as the central attacking forward, and nobody else who could act as the linking man in the middle if Powers wasn't dropped back. (Kevin Harbottle was tried at the point a few times and he was awful at it, which may have spelled the end of his Rapids career.)

Injuries eventually led to the idea of removing the linking man and dropping him back in the form of an emergent Nathan Sturgis, and...

***

This is where we currently are, the 4-2-3-1 that will likely return next year and remain the formation of 'Pareja-ball'. Nathan Sturgis emerging as a star and Dillon Powers revealing himself to be a great attacking midfielder in addition to a good defensive midfielder made this happen, but there were changes in the attacking tactics here as well, mostly due to the emergence of Chris Klute.

Here's the formation as I expect it on opening day 2014, assuming no huge changes to the roster are made:

Gabriel Torres
Deshorn Brown - Dillon Powers - Vicente Sanchez
Hendry Thomas - Nathan Sturgis
Chris Klute - Drew Moor - Diego Calderon - Shane O'Neill
Clint Irwin

The biggest difference here is in the midfield, where there are now two true defensive midfielders roaming in the back. However, the most advanced tactics yet on the attack have come in this formation. Instead of being a possession-attentive team, they only focus on holding the ball for long periods of time when the two defensive midfielders have it. They have two great passers with defensive acumen manning those spots for a reason, that's where pressure is to be absorbed and distribution is to be started.

On the attack, the Rapids have evolved into a team that thrives while playing the ball wide. It's not quite counter-attack soccer, but it is quick and numbers-based when most attacks start out. It usually begins with the ball being sprayed out wide by Thomas or Sturgis and then ran as far up the pitch as possible. The man running it up the wing ideally has only one man on them as the Rapids get their five main attackers (one of the fullbacks, all three strikers, the attacking midfielder) racing forward. If there's a numbers advantage in the box, a cross is usually played in. Otherwise, the Rapids focus on switching the point of attack with a diagonal ball and isolating one of their attackers in a 1v1 situation.

I covered all of this in that pre-game Sounders post I did about how Pareja should never, ever play Atiba Harris in this system again. (He did, blah.)

By far the biggest issue that the Rapids have had with this formation so far has been the lack of linkage between the defense and the attack, especially when Dillon Powers has been missing to provide the hub of attack at the top of the midfield. (It has also been hurt by the occasional odd use of Nick Labrocca as a striker or using Harris, who requires a slower game to be effective.) That may be something that fixes itself with time, or it may be fixed with Sturgis or Thomas being replaced by a midfielder more adept at connecting the two. As it stands though, this looks like it should be a formation with enough good points to overshadow the bad, especially when the ideal lineup is on the field and the team isn't sitting back to try and absorb more pressure than it should be trying to. (Both of those bad points happened in the match against Seattle.)

Or perhaps, we haven't seen the end of the evolution of Pareja-ball. We'll see what 2014 brings as our coach continues to perfect his craft.